The City of Meknes in Morocco

Meknes is a city in northern Morocco, located 140 km from the capital Rabat and 60 km from Fez. It is one of the four imperial cities of Morocco, a World Heritage Site. Its population is 985,000 (2010).   

Like many other ancient cities in Morocco, Meknes is divided into the Medina and the Neue. Under Moul Ismail, who wanted to protect the city from Berber attacks, the medina was surrounded by a 10-km-long wall and the Bab Mansour El Alj Gate, which is the most beautiful gate of Morocco.

In 1996, the Old City of Meknes was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its distinctive blend of Islamic and European architectural traditions.

A settlement on the site of the city emerged only in the eighth century under the name of Kasba, which means fortress. The Berber tribe named the city Miknasa and settled there in the tenth century. The city began to develop around the Almoravid fortress of Takarart. In 1673, Meknes became the capital of Ismael ibn Sherif, who built it with opulent palaces that made the city famous as the “Moroccan Versailles”. After the death of the ruler in 1727, the city lost its metropolitan functions. In 1911. Meknes was occupied by formations of the French army. A special area was built for the settlement of Europeans, separated by the river from the historic part of the city.

The Medina of Meknes is one of the liveliest places in the city, with Place el Hedime, which connects the old city with the imperial part. 

There are picturesque markets in the square, open to the public since early morning and offering a variety of handicrafts of local artisans, numerous carpets and tapestries.

Also on the square you can see exciting performances of fire-glazers, snake charmers and acrobats.

One of the architectural monuments of Meknes is the monumental Bab Mansour gate. The gate was built in the 18th century and is considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world.

The Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail – built in 1703, located in Lalla Aouda Square, its inner courtyard is decorated with mosaics, fountains, carved cedar ceiling, the floor of the mausoleum is covered with luxurious carpets.

The Royal Palace (Dar el-Makhzen) was one of the most magnificent palaces of Meknes, preserved as a luxurious open-air labyrinth. It was the official palace of Moulay Ismail.

The Royal stables, the ruins of what were once huge stables for 12,000 horses, each with its own stall, are still stunning and are often the setting for films. From anywhere in the stables one can get a perspective of the columns that extend into the distance. The roof of the building has not survived, and the rays of the sun, streaming through the high semicircular vaults, create an amazing play of light and shadow.

The Cara subterranean prison was built on the personal orders of Moulay Ismail. It is a deep dungeon seven by seven kilometers in area, now partially destroyed by earthquakes. It is called the prison of Kara, after one of the Portuguese, to whom the sultan promised freedom if he would draw up a plan for a prison for 40,000 prisoners.

Most of the underground labyrinths were destroyed by the 1755 earthquake, and only three large chambers (each measuring 2,000 square meters) are now accessible for viewing. Even locals do not dare to go down into the rest of the catacombs which stretch for several kilometers in the direction of Fez. It is believed that there is no one in Meknes who knows all the intricacies of the labyrinths.

Most of the former prisoners of the Cara prison are sailors and passengers on European ships captured by the pirates of the Sale. The poor prisoners’ fate was not enviable – they were forced to convert to Islam and work on the construction of Meknes. The rich were ransomed or exchanged for Muslims languishing in European prisons.

Frenchman Muet, who spent more than 10 years in prison, wrote in his notes that 25,000 Christians and 30,000 criminals were kept in the prisons of Moulay Ismail, 30,000 slaves took care of horses in the stables, and 500 women from all over the world gave birth to innumerable offspring to the Sultan in the harem. Arab sources, on the other hand, say that the captive Christians in Meknes were only a thousand and a half at most.

Right above the prison, near its entrance, is a hall for receiving foreign ambassadors. The Sultan was faithful to himself in this choice of location, too: through openings visible on the ground (through which light and air penetrated into the cells) the ambassadors could observe the living conditions of their fellow prisoners. This, according to Ishmael, who was interested in receiving ransoms as soon as possible, greatly accelerated the process of negotiations.

The Madrasa Bou Inania was founded in 1358. It used to teach up to a hundred boys of 8-10 years old at a time, but it is no longer in operation as a Koranic school, now a monument of architecture of the Merinidian era.

It is worth paying attention to the walls decorated with mosaics and arabesques, the ceiling made of carved cedar, the pool in the form of a sea shell in the ablution room. The rooms in the lower gallery were for students aged 8 to 10, while the upper gallery was for the older students and teachers. The rooms were open to the public.

Dar Jamai Museum – The museum building (1882) was built for his family by Mohammed Belarbi Al Jamai, Grand Vizier of Hassan I. In 1912, the house was converted into a military hospital and in 1920 it became a Museum of Moroccan Art with a rather extensive collection of art and everyday objects from the Meknes region.

In 2005, as a result of the modernization of the Moroccan museum system, Dar Jamai became a specialized museum – its exhibition is now devoted exclusively to Moroccan carpets from all regions of the country.

The Bassin de l’Agdal is near the Royal Stables. It covers an area of 4 hectares and is 4 meters deep. By creating the pool, Moulay Ismail solved several problems at once. First of all, the possibility of entertainment for his numerous wives and concubines, irrigation of the nearby gardens of Agdal and water supply for the stables. In the case of a siege of the city, it could serve as a reservoir of fresh drinking water.

At 24 km from Meknes lies the town of Moulay Idriss and the main Muslim shrine of Morocco, the tomb of Zaouia De Moulay Idriss, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, who brought Islam to Africa and established the first Arab state on Moroccan territory.  

The Moulay Idriss mausoleum is off-limits to non-Muslims, as the wooden bar dividing the entrance reminds. Every year in August and September pilgrims come to the mausoleum. The unusual cylindrical minaret lined with green ceramics is of particular interest here.

26 km from Meknes is the ancient Roman city of Volubilis. Its area is 4 hectares. In the 1st century AD it was one of the major cities of Mauritania. There are remains of a forum, capitol, basilica, market place, triumphal arch and oil presses.

Volubilis is the southwesternmost city of the Roman Empire. Its ruins are located 26 km from Meknes. Since 1997 it has been protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The time of Volubilis’ origin is lost in the mists of centuries. A settlement on its site has existed since Neolithic times. In the 3rd century B.C. the Carthaginians were the rulers of the area. At the turn of the millennium Volubilis became an important center of Hellenistic culture in the Moorish Kingdom, ruled by Juba II. After the assassination of King Ptolemy in 40 AD, it became part of the Empire as the center of the province of Muretania Tingitana.

The name means “bounty” in Latin, alluding to the fertility of the soil. The main construction work in Volubilis took place in the second century. Then a forum with a basilica was built and an aqueduct was laid. The triumphal arch is well preserved. Soon after it was built the Roman magistrates moved to Tangier. The subsequent history of Volubilis is poorly covered by ancient authors. 

French excavations at Volubilis, begun in 1915 and resumed in the 21st century, show that the ancient city was destroyed by an earthquake. The damaged aqueduct went out of use, and the inhabitants began to settle near the river itself. When the descendant of the Prophet, Idris ibn Abdallah, came to these places in 788, he chose Volubilis as his first residence.

The Arab village on the site of the ancient city (nowadays known as Vallila) sustained heavy damage in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and was finally abandoned. The population moved to the nearby town of Moulay Idris.

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